While growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Eliseo Rodriguez did odd jobs for a group of artists known as Los Cinco Pintores, the Five Painters. They allowed the boy to look at their works in progress. He also learned from his father, Juan Manuel Rodriguez, a weaver and carver. As a teenager, Eliseo was awarded a scholarship to the Santa Fe Arts School, becoming the first Hispanic to receive formal instruction there.
Paula Gutierrez met Eliseo Rodriguez in 1933, and they married two years later. In 1936, he was hired by the Federal Art Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration. For $78 a month, he painted New Mexico landscapes and other scenes for public buildings and museums. He also worked on murals for the Texas Centennial in Dallas.
Then the director of the project, Russell Vernon Hunter, asked Eliseo to revive straw appliqué, an almost extinct art form that had flourished in northern New Mexico in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Known as “poor man’s gilding,” it was used to emulate gold leaf in the decoration of crosses and retablos, religious screens, in churches. By a painstaking process of trial and error, Eliseo and Paula Rodriguez learned straw appliqué. When the Museum of International Folk Art opened in 1953, the Rodriguezes finally got a chance to see earlier examples of the art form and learned that they had done a good job of imagining it. Nonetheless, they continued to refine their technique and to expand beyond the traditional geometric designs, integrating narrative, figurative imagery into the objects they created. In the early 1980s, Eliseo created a seven-foot straw inlay cross depicting the story of Christ from its inception in Old Testament prophesies.
The couple never expected to make money selling their art, but by the mid-1960s the word had spread and people began showing up to buy their work. Museums at home and abroad also expressed interest, and in the 1970s, they began exhibiting in Santa Fe’s annual Spanish Market. “If it wasn’t for the Spanish Market, a lot of artists, including us, wouldn’t have the kind of recognition we have,” Eliseo told Spanish Market Magazine in 1997.
Eliseo remained active as a painter, too, and worked eight years, starting in 1964, to paint the Stations of the Cross at the Catholic church of Our Lady of Grace in Castro Valley, California.
The Rodriguezes passed their skills along to family members and other students, and the once-dying art form now has a number of practitioners in New Mexico. Former students teach straw appliqué in the public schools as part of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society’s Youth Outreach Program.
“With the help of God, beauty is there,” Eliseo told The New Mexican in 1980, “and it’s humans that can work with that beauty so that other humans can enjoy.”
“Deserved Recognition.” The New Mexican (October 1980).
Eauclaire, Sally. “Artistry in Straw: Eliseo and Paula Rodriquez.” The Santa Fean Magazine (December 1992).
Padilla, Carmella. “Eliseo and Paula Rodriquez: Golden Couple Creates Golden Works in Straw.” Spanish Market Magazine (1997).
Sagel, Jim. “Eliseo Rodriguez.” Santa Fe (October 1982).
Soto, Monica. “Living Treasures: Remarkable People, Remarkable Lives.” The Santa Fe New Mexican (October 1998).
Villani, John. “New Mexico’s Diverse Culture Displayed in Washington, D.C.” The New Mexican (July 1992).
Warren, Jill. “Ancient Roots Feed Craftsman’s Work.” The New Mexican Pasatiempo (July 1981).
Eliseo and Paula Rodriguez interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Eliseo Rodriguez answers the question 'What is the appeal to working with straw?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar
Eliseo Rodriguez answers the question 'Do you like to experiment?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar
Eliseo Rodriguez answers the question 'What is the origin of straw weaving?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar
Eliseo Rodriguez answers the question 'How did you develop your technique?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar